1. Education

Roman Woodworking

by Roger B. Ulrich


Roman Woodworking is an amply black & white-illustrated reference work for those students and scholars interested in ancient trees and wood crafts. It should share shelf space with books on ancient ships and architecture and would be an especially handy companion for Vergil and Pliny. It includes chapters on the identity of the Roman woodworkers, his tools, wooden joints, foundations, framing and walls, flooring, roofing and ceilings, interior woodwork, wheels, furniture and veneers, classification of trees, Italian forests, a 67-page glossary, and an appendix on the tools.


Roman Woodworking

"Wood was arguably the most valuable natural resource utilized by the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. Wood was a primary... component of tools, housing, household implements, modes of transportation, containers, and scaffolding.... Wood was used for dyes, waterproofing materials, and pipes; it provided the sole source of energy for cooking, heating, smelting, and firing clay."

Besides literature which is full of information on trees since most Roman or Greek writers mentioned them, evidence for woodworking comes from carbonized forms from Herculaneum, waterlogged timber, like shipwrecks, objects preserved in the dry climate of Egypt, imprints from disintegrated wood, and depictions on frescos, relief sculptures, and mosaics.

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Chapter 2 - The Roman Woodworker

Roman woodworkers practiced an ars, making them neither unskilled nor artists, but skilled craftsmen. Generally the woodworker was a slave, freedman, or freeborn, landless plebeian. Daedalus is counted as the first woodworker. The House of the Craftsman (Casa del Fabbro) in Pompeii contains many hand tools: iron chisels, gouges, files, an adze-hammer, hatchets, a saw, compass, rule, and drill bits. It appears the woodworker would have worked in his home.

Chapter 3 - Tools of the Trade

The third chapter describes the woodworker's tools, which can be divided into measuring or marking devices, iron cutting tools, and miscellany such as mallets, chisels, clamps and wedges.

Chapter 4 - Joints

The chapter on joints stresses that proper joint making is the fundamental skill of the woodworker. Nails are not required, although glue, twine, or nails were common. Joints made by wood alone or in combination with these are variants of the mortise and tenon, scarf, and saddle joints.

Chapter 5 - Foundations

As is true today, stone or concrete is preferred to wood in most cases for foundation material, but in wet places, like docks or flood-prone areas, wood is better. The best woods were alder, larch, and oak, which would be pointed on one end, sheathed in iron and then pounded as piles into the ground. Even when using concrete, a wood frame keeps the concret in the right shape. Water pipes could be made of bored wood connected with iron collars.

Chapter 6 - Framing and Walls

Thick timbers formed buildings' skeletons. The earliest were upright trunks in postholes with horizontal timbers lashed to them. There were also wattle and daub homes and opus craticum or half-timber constructions. Bridges, amphitheaters and other large buildings were built entirely of wood, with surprisingly few mentions of collapse.

Chapter 7 - Wooden Flooring

6th century B.C. Joists were placed on the dirt, shimmed and then crossed with planks to form the floors. Roman floors were often covered with concrete and tile. Upper floors had large beams instead of dirt beneath them.

Chapter 8 - Roofing and Ceilings

Wooden shingles covered roofs to the 3rd century B.C. in Rome and to the modern era in Britain. Wood-framed ceilings which might consist of exposed beams; otherwise, planks were nailed to the bottoms. they could, of course, be more ornate.

Chapter 9 - Interior Woodwork

In the chapter on interior woodwork (opus intestinum) Ulrich says Romans designed doors and lintels of wood encased in bronze or marble to impress. An ordinary door could be made of vertical planks inserted into stone thresholds and wooden lintel frames.

Chapter 10 - Wheels

The craft of the wheelwright changed over time as wheels evolved from solid disks with a center hole to spoked wheels, water wheels, and wheels for heavy-lifting.

Chapter 11 - Furniture and Veneers

In describing ancient furniture there are problems of preservation. What was found in Egypt may not represent Roman style, although Ulrich says there were widespread standards. Most furniture has disintegrated but carbonized furniture from Herculaneum and Egyptian tombs give us some ideas.

Chapter 12 - Classification of Trees and Species of Timber

Ulrich says carpenters classified wood by density, hardness, and weight. Wild wood was denser, harder, and heavier and best for woodworking. Cultivated trees tended to be better for food. This chapter is especially useful for reading the Aeneid. It also contains information about wood preservatives, which included charring, pickling, and costly cedar oil.

Chapter 13 - The Forests of Italy

The Appenines run the length of Italy and into Sicily. In this mountain range were forests and a logging industry. Near Rome there were 4 areas with good hardwoods and pines that would not have been depleted. The lowlands produced shrubs, evergreens and trees useful for their nuts or resin, and the holm-oak. The larch, which grew in the Alps was fire-resistant.

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